The perpetual addition of new attractions, rides, hotels, and “immersive experiences” means the grand Disney park experiment will never end. Evolving theme park technology helps immersive experiences like Flight of Passage and Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance blur the line between reality and the fantastical. Disney is and will always be in the business of topping its own game.
That’s all fine and good, but when it comes to absolutely terrifying rides, Disney should just call it quits. The parks team already achieved the single scariest experience ever with its 1998 attraction Dinosaur. The first time I rode Dinosaur in the early 2000s, I had a meltdown. During a recent trip earlier this month, I rode it again and can confirm: It is still the scariest ride in all of Walt Disney World.
There’s a strong chance that even if you’re a regular park-goer, it’s been a while since you’ve taken a ride on Dinosaur, which lives in the shadow of attractions like Galaxy’s Edge and Pandora: World of Avatar. The dark ride opened during the Animal Kingdom launch in 1998 and was originally entitled Countdown to Extinction. Aside from a minor update in 2000, which changed the name of the attraction to Dinosaur and included a short clip of Al the Iguanodon from Disney’s dinosaur movie (also entitled Dinosaur, believe it or not), the ride has remained relatively unchanged.
But the terror doesn’t come from cutting-edge tech or immersive experiences. This ride cuts deeper.
Part of it lies in the setup. A fun, very stuck-in-the-1990s video introduces guests to the fictional Dino Institute and Dr. Marsh (Phylicia Rashād of The Cosby Show), who gives a speech about “time rovers” and an upcoming trip to the past. She sends viewers to the eccentric Dr. Seeker (Wallace Langham from Weird Science) for a safety briefing. However, the man of science commits some major ethical violations, informing the crowd that he intends to send everyone back in time mere minutes before the dinosaurs’ mass extinction in order to retrieve an Iguanodon. He does this while going behind Dr. Marsh’s back, assuring the group that they’ll be totally fine.
After guests board the time rover, the ride zips them through near-darkness. Dinosaur is faster than most Disney dark rides, which alone makes it scary. Plummeting in pitch-black darkness on a bumpy time rover is made all the more worse when there’s a chance that the next turn will reveal a terrifying dinosaur glaring at you, illuminated by sharp red lighting. As a kid, it’s terrifying because those dinosaurs could definitely, absolutely eat me. As an adult, it’s also terrifying because even though I rationally know those dinosaurs can’t eat me, I think, What if they did?
The fact that the dinosaurs are meant to scare you, that turning a corner could mean coming face to face with a man-eating Carnotaurus, separates Dinosaur from Disney’s typical “scary” rides. Haunted Mansion and Tower of Terror (and arguably the first moments of Pirates of the Caribbean) use creepy elements to create an atmosphere, but don’t actually employ them as part of the ride’s thrills. Haunted Mansion is a leisurely tour through a spoopy space, while Tower of Terror’s excitement comes from the free-fall. The only other ride that does use scare tactics is Expedition Everest, with its terrifying animatronic yeti, but the ride is mostly outside in the open air, unlike the claustrophobic space of Dinosaur.
Not only is it dark and cramped with man-eating dinosaurs around every corner, but about halfway through Dinosaur, a meteor “crashes” and the time rover starts jerking around. Loud sirens keep blaring as a voice counts down to the moment of extinction. It’s dark, it’s loud, and you can’t leave! The truly unethical scientist urges us to press on and on, refusing to rescue the time rover, even in the face of certain death. There is no way out! I can’t say no to this guy who’s decided to abuse his position of power to send volunteers into a dangerous experiment, undermining his superior and violating basically every rule in the book.
Finally, when we’re face to face with the dinosaur that we’ve been sent to find, Dr. Seeker decides that oh, maybe this is too dangerous, and yanks the time rover back to the present day.
(Don’t worry: The Iguanodon somehow finds its way back to the present).
Dinosaur rattled me, an adult, during my most recent trip. I went onto the ride certain that as with other rides that had scared me as a child — Space Mountain, for instance — I had grown into the experience, no longer afraid of dark drops and fast speeds. But oh no, Dinosaur still shook me up the same way, instilling the childish fear I had buried from my experience years prior.
Disney theme parks will continue to expand, opening new rides and revamping old ones. But for every addition of Jack Sparrow, for every opening of Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, there is an old ride, yet untouched by Walt Disney Imagineers, tucked away in the corner of Dinoland U.S.A., with a line just under 20 minutes long, that will give you just as intense a thrill as whatever newfangled attraction with a two-hour wait.